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Speech by Mrs Josephine Teo Minister for Manpower at Her World Woman of The Year Award Presentation

MAKING FAMILY OUR CHOICE

  • Good evening and thank you for inviting me.
  • The two winners tonight have not been formally introduced, but I would like to congratulate you anyway.
    • Well done!
    • May you scale greater heights of achievement.

Women: 200 years of contributions

  • We’ve just celebrated National Day last week. This is also the year of our Bicentennial.
  • On several occasions this year, I have spoken about the remarkable women who contributed as much as men to the development of Singapore in the last 200 years. Women such as:
    • Hajjah Fatimah, a tradeswoman and philanthropist who came to Singapore in 1819. Apart from houses for the poor, she donated money and land to build a mosque
    • Another example is Hedwig Anuar who in 1960, became the first Singaporean to be appointed as the Director of the National Library. Incidentally, she was Her World Woman of the Year in 1993.
    • Then, there is Prof Gloria Lim, who became the first woman to be named Dean of the Faculty of Science at the University of Singapore, and later the first Director at the National Institute of Education in 1991.
  • There are countless women in practically every field – sports, arts, policing, the professions, entrepreneurship – whose pioneering spirit blazed the trail for all of us. This evening celebrates the contemporary women who inspire us through their achievements.
  • It is, I believe, the 28th edition of the Her World Woman of the Year award.
    • Back in 1991 when the award was inaugurated, I was studying for my Masters at the London School of Economics.
    • Without a scholarship from the EDB; my family could not have afforded to send me abroad.
    • With no extra allowance to count on, I tried to save every penny in order to travel. Lunch was mostly 4 slices of plain bread and jam.
  • There was no internet access then; no Straits Times or Zaobao for me.
    • I knew about the award only because my mother made a newspaper clipping and sent it to me by snail mail.
    • There she was, Professor Chan Heng Chee on the front page of The Straits Times! 
  • Although the clipping was not accompanied by any note, my mother’s message was clear.
    • My generation had more opportunities than hers ever did.
    • She hoped I would make the best of them and go far.
    • We never spoke about this but mum’s intentions were not lost on me.

Generations past and present

  • Many of the women here tonight will readily agree that our mothers’ and grandmothers’ generations were quite constrained in their life choices.
    • They would have had to be quite lucky to get a full education;
    • With or without it, most women got married and had kids.
    • Some did have careers as teachers or nurses
    • The other women who worked may have been in factories or helped out informally in small family businesses; they had jobs but these were not quite the careers of today.
  • My generation grew up in post-independence Singapore.
    • Our parents were never forced to decide whether to send us or our brothers to school because it was too costly to send both.
    • Enrolment rates for junior colleges, polytechnics and universities were about the same, for girls and boys.
    • When we started work, assignments were generally similar to those of men; likewise, the opportunities to climb the career ladder.
    • When it came to marriage, however, it would still take a brave soul to buck the trend.
    • Of the 40 or so girls in my secondary 2 class, we can count the number of singles on one hand.

Changing mindsets and expanded opportunities

  • The current generation of young women enjoy an even wider range of opportunities.
    • Access to higher education has helped to open up job opportunities in diverse fields.
    • Her World’s Young Women Achievers have far more varied careers.
    • This has enabled more women to gain newfound independence in our professional and personal lives.
  • Take for example, overseas assignments.
    • Trailing spouses were always women.
    • Today, trailing husbands are not uncommon.
  • Singlehood is also no longer frowned upon.
  • Ironically, with more choices available, we may inadvertently end up where we did not intend. 
  • For example, we may intend to find a partner and marry.
    • But our bosses dangled the opportunity to do an MBA before Mr. Right proposed. So marriage took a back-seat. 
    • Or we were offered a promotion opportunity, with real prospects of moving up further. So baby was put on hold. 
  • On the one hand, these opportunities are wonderful.
  • But they also have a way of preventing us from pursuing other aspirations that are equally, if not more satisfying.
  • It is like going to a restaurant.
    • We start with the appetizer and then the main course.
    • By then, we may already feel satisfied.
    • So we decide to leave dessert to another day; all the more so if the menu has more than one appetizer or main course. 
    • It may not be the result of conscious choice, but quite often, our careers have become the “main course”. 
  • Put another way, our careers can be so rewarding that we don’t have room for much else. By the time we are ready to form our own families, the moment may have passed.
  • To be absolutely clear, I’m not in any way suggesting there’s anything wrong with staying single or not having children. 
    • It may be a result of conscious choice, and that is fine.
    • But for some women, it was not the life they imagined at the outset.
  • In survey after survey, young women in Singapore say consistently they would like to marry and become mothers. 
    • Many do but more have not realised their own dreams.
    • Somehow, between intention and action, things got in the way.
  • My message to younger women is therefore a simple one.
    • Our wishes can come true, usually when we have a plan.
    • This is true in almost every aspect of our lives, and family is no different.
    • If family features in our aspirations, we should plan to make it happen.
    • It means setting priorities on what to do with our time and energies.
    • Career is important but we should also make time to socialise, date and fall in love.
    • Given how focussed our women tend to be, I believe you will succeed when you put your minds to it.

Better support for families

  • Let me say that when making such speeches, I always have some apprehension. It is because on such matters, we generally prefer the Government to step back, and what I say can be misunderstood or quoted out of context.
  • We don’t mind, however, that the Government helps us in practical ways to expand our choices.
    • For example, quicker access to public housing so we can settle down.
    • Or more affordable and quality preschool that makes it easier to keep working even with young children.
  • We also welcome the Government’s efforts to promote Flexible Work Arrangements.
    • More than 9 in 10 employees today work in companies that provide some form of work flexibility.
    • We are involving fellow Singaporeans in a Citizens’ Panel on Work-Life Harmony.
  • But these are about as far as the Government can go. 
  • At this Sunday’s National Day Rally Speech, the Prime Minister will say more about how we can better support young families.
    • The 4G Ministers are committed to this and want to do more in housing, preschool and healthcare.
  • Ultimately, however, the Government cannot decide for us if and when to marry, and whether or not to have children. 
    • It also cannot dictate our individual priorities.
    • It up to us to make family our choice.

Concluding remarks

  • One final point before I end.
  • Singaporeans now have the world’s longest life expectancy at about 85 years. It is even longer for us women.
  • I truly believe longevity is our opportunity. Why?
    • With more good years in our lives, there’s really no need to give up one aspiration for the other.
    • With more good years in our lives, we can be good daughters, good students, good career women, good wives, good mothers, good volunteers, good community activists, the list goes on.
  • But we need not be equally good in all of these things all the time.
    • That is a recipe for great stress, (which risks premature ageing, if I may add).
  • Instead, we can re-order our priorities at each stage of life.
    • We can be good in the things that matter at different times.
    • Over the course of many years, we can live life to the fullest.
    • That is the great choice we have today as women.
  • There are challenges, of course.
    • There is the fear of losing out in our careers if we step off the pedal for too long.
    • There’s also guilt if we’re not with family when they most need us.
    • Our employers and co-workers may not always be supportive.
  • As a society, we should keep working to remove such impediments to women who have both family and career aspirations. 
    • We can say with some comfort that we continue to progress
    • Even if we have not arrived at where we want to be.
  • In the meantime, I hope more women avail yourselves to the rewards of family life, such as the joys of companionship and the pride of seeing Junior complete National Service, or seeing our own daughters become mothers.
  • You need look no further that the past awardees of the Her World Woman of the Year.
    • Of the 28 recipients, 22 have children.
    • Some like Professor Ivy Ng and President Halimah Yacob are exceptionally capable and go well beyond the average.
  • But please don’t think you are in a competition.
    • You don’t need to have 4 or 5!
    • Have only as many as you feel comfortable.
    • It is good enough!
  • In conclusion, longevity gives us a chance to accomplish more, if we are prepared to re-order our priorities from time to time.
  • I hope all our young women, including my twin daughters, can see your lives in the new light that longevity brings. 
    • Make the best of the choices available to you.
    • And do consider making family your choice.
  • Thank you once again for having me. 
  • Have a great evening!